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Another Racist Anti-Racist Conference?

In April this year the Human Rights Council will hold a ‘Durban Review’ conference in Geneva, in order to “evaluate progress towards the goals set” at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR). The 2001 meeting ended in confusion when the Israeli and US delegations walked out, and its impact was largely forgotten when a few days later the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre occurred.

The original WCAR was a disaster in many ways. Originally intended as a means of developing ‘soft law’ regarding racial discrimination, the meeting quickly descended into farcical anti-semitic declarations which denounced Israel as an apartheid state, compared the occupation of Palestine to the Holocaust, and equated Zionism with racism. In the NGO forum, where so-called anti-racist NGOs could make their views heard, Arab groups sold copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the well known anti-semitic tract from the 19th century, and flyers were distributed citing the lack of a State of Israel as being a probable benefit had Hitler ‘won’. (See Bayefsky, “The UN World Conference Against Racism”, 96 Am. Soc’y Int’l L. Proc. 67 (2002).) Documents for the final declaration drafted by Iran and Arab States singled out Israel for special criticism and made mention of none of the States around the world where racism and racial discrimination are commonplace. Eventually, the Israeli and US delegations believed they had no alternative but to leave, and various European States rescued the conference and managed to tone down its virulence.

The Obama administration apparently feels even more strongly about the issue than its predecessor did: Along with Canada and Israel, it is already planning to boycott the forthcoming review conference, fully aware that it is likely to become another anti-semitic debacle rather than a genuine attempt to confront racial discrimination.

In the meantime institutional bias against Israel in the UN’s human rights system seems to have deepened. In June 2007 the UN Human Rights Council almost unanimously voted to make Israel a permanent issue on its agenda – the only State whose human rights record is to be discussed at every meeting of the Council. Even Ban Ki-Moon expressed his concern at “the council’s decision to single out only one specific regional item given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world”; a US representative rather more accurately summed up the decision as “pathological”. It was however unsurprising to UN-watchers, who are well aware of Israel’s pariah status in that organization. Israel is, for example, the only country which is not a member of a UN Regional Group, and therefore the only State whose representatives cannot be elected to the ECOSOC Council or the Human Rights Council, among other bodies.

In light of recent events in Gaza the Durban Review Conference is likely to make especially interesting viewing. Whatever ‘soft law’ develops will undoubtedly be shrouded in political infighting: a depressing prospect, but it is to be hoped that the EU members and other influential States will follow the US and Canada’s lead and draw attention to this serious problem.


  1. Rob Rob 7 March 2009

    Whilst handing out copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion etc. is evidently anti-semitic, can the same really be said for viewing Israel as an apartheid state, or identifying Zionism with racism?

  2. davidmcgrogan davidmcgrogan Post author | 8 March 2009

    Rob, criticism of Israel in itself is not anti-semitic. However, taken in context, the remarks made by government representatives at WCAR can only be interpreted as anti-semitic, because they singled out the Jewish State for criticisms which could equally be levelled at many other countries, but failed to mention those countries. Giving Israel a special level of approbrium far above that of other States must be interpreted as anti-semitic, because the only distinguishing feature of Israel as compared to other States is that it is Jewish.
    In addition, the level of rhetorical hyperbole that accompanies denunciations of Israel (but which is often absent from criticism of other countries) is indicative, I believe, of anti-semitic sentiment. For example, it simply is not the case that the occupation of Palestine is in any way similar to the Holocaust. The only reason why that comparison seems to be made is to play on a highly emotive issue for Jewish people in a cruel and exploitative way.
    Likewise, Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizenry is in no way similar to the Apartheid system in South Africa, and considerably better than, for example, Japan’s treatment of its Korean and Chinese populations – many of whom were denied the right to a nationality for many years. Yet Japan is (rightly) never compared to Apartheid South Africa. Only Israel. This is, to my mind, indicative of anti-semitic sentiment.

  3. davidmcgrogan davidmcgrogan Post author | 13 March 2009

    Italy has also now pulled out. See the International Herald Tribune article. Apparently the governments of Belgiun, Holland and Denmark are also threatening to pull out unless anti-Semitic statements are scrapped from the agenda.

  4. jernejl jernejl 13 March 2009

    Most of the criticism against Israel by developing countries is not justified. Likewise, the boycott of Western nations do not appear justified, particularly as all former and current colonist European nations (UK; the Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark, Italy) etc. have so far failed to apologise for the aggression and crimes committed during the colonialism. In other words, the Western European nations do not stand on a well-grounded moral pillar to assess the rightfulness/wrongfulness of the Anti-Racist Conference. This, however, cannot justify ‘holy war’ of some developing nations against the state of Israel.

  5. Dominik Zimmermann Dominik Zimmermann 13 March 2009

    one could certainly discuss at length whether or not any apologies should be expected from the countries you’ve mentioned but I wonder if you can rightfully take the colonial history as a reason for saying that western nations’ boycott of the conference is not justified. Does the history of European countries really disqualify them from making an assessment of the rightfulness/wrongfulness of a conference which by most standards threatens to become little more than an anti-Semitic forum? I would say no, and even go further by saying that it is our history that compels us to take a stance.

  6. jernejl jernejl 13 March 2009

    The colonial baggage of the Western European states certainly robes them of any credibility due to lack of official apologies for crimes committed before, during and after their colonial conquests. The lack of anofficial apology speaks for itself and invites considerations of the non-application of the equal standards to the same or equal situations. Of course, this something that Western European politicians prefer no to hear.

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